Promotional still from the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes,

Anyone who has been researching their family history for any length of time will recognise the problem: you find a woman in a census with her parents but after that she falls completely out of sight.  In England and Wales, I find it a particular challenge for women born in the last part of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, because the censuses dry up...

Take Ellen Wright, eldest daughter of Stanley Wright and Mary Ann Harper, born about 1885 in Birmingham, England (based on information in the 1891 and 1901 census, when she is living with her parents). She isn't a direct ancestor, but the sister of my grandfather Robert Wright, so I'm unwilling to pay for BMD certificates for her (even if I could locate probable references).

By 1911 she's no longer living with either parent (who have split up). There's an Ellen Wright born in Birmingham around 1886 working as a housemaid at the Women's Hospital1 in Yardley, Birmingham which isn't too far away from where she was living in 1901 (when her occupation was also given as housemaid) and there isn't another likely single woman of the right name and age in Birmingham.  

However, who's to say she hadn't moved elsewhere? After all, her sister Mary Agnes was working as a nurse at a Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire. But, there's no other unmarried Ellen or Nellie Wright born in Warwickshire or neighbouring counties between 1883 and 1887 (according to the 1911 census index on anywhere else in England or Wales.  

Could she have married between 1901 and 1911? She was old enough...  There were 4 marriages of an Ellen Wright in the Aston or Birmingham districts between 1901 and 1911, and 8 possible husbands.  Searching the 1911 census of Birmingham for an Ellen of the right age and birthplace and any of the 8 possible surnames only throws up a single possibility: Ellen married to Albert George Stephens in 1908.  Luckily, it was a marriage in a Parish Church and Ancestry has the Church of England Marriages for Birmingham up to 1937.  This Ellen's father was William, so she's ruled out. I could look for marriages of an Ellen Wright anywhere in the country between 1901 and 1911 but there are 296 of them — far too many to investigate individually.  And, given her social class, it's most likely she would have married in Birmingham, close to where she grew up.

Emigrated? Six of her siblings went to Canada between 1912 and 1926, so she could have been the trailblazer. But I've not found her on an outbound passenger list between 1901 and 1911, not as a single woman and not under one of her possible married names.

So, if I assume that was her at the Women's Hospital in 1911, where could I look next? The 1921 census isn't available yet, and there's a big gap to the 1939 register with lots of chances for her to move and/to get married. I don't have enough information to search electoral registers or phone books successfully. 

And so, to all intents and purposes, the lady has vanished, definitely after 1911 and possibly even after 1901.

I love the note added to the census schedule for the Women's Hospital by the Matron, Kate Richmond: "Had I been a private individual instead of a paid official I should have refused to fill in these papers as a protest against the present law that a fully qualified woman should have no Vote!". Yet another manifestation of vanishing ladies.

Nov 2, 2016 By ColeValleyGirl

Add new comment